The Price of Numbers: Industrialization of Ukraine

by Jacek  Wypych

Much of the economic restoration stemming from the ravages of World War I and the Civil War in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was completed by late 1925. Leftist hardliners, including the emerging Josef Stalin, decided it was time to end Lenin’s NEP and begin building a socialist economy – by rapid industrialization at heavy social cost. The Congress of the CPSU met in late December of 1925 and laid out comprehensive plans to industrialize the USSR in the coming years, with Ukraine leading the process.

Many industrial projects were undertaken in Ukraine following the Congress. The Shteriv electric power station was constructed, and work began on reconstructing several locomotive plants and building hydroelectric power plants, mainly on the Dnieper river. Investment in large-scale Ukrainian industry grew at an impressive pace – between 1926 and 1928, investment in the sector increased by over 150 percent (Most of the numbers used in this essay come from Soviet data. These numbers are somewhat inflated, but they can nonetheless provide valuable insight. For example, gross industrial output of Ukraine between 1928 and 1937 grew by a factor of 5.5 according to the Soviet figures – the actual figure is closer to 3.4, which is an impressive figure notwithstanding.) By 1928, Ukraine reached the 1913 output of industrial products (2.3 million tons of pig iron, 2.4 million tons of steel, and 24.8 million tons of coal per annum), and the socialist sector of Ukrainian industry reached 88%.

Until 1929, 78.5% of the investment in industry went to the restoration of old plants. The time had arrived to expand the industry onto new ground. The Stalin-dominated 15 th Congress of the CPSU drafted the first Five Year Plan. It was a plan of rapid industrialization, and it was to transform Ukraine into the Soviet Union’s premier industrial center, especially in the areas of coal extraction and metallurgy. To finance this massive undertaking, Stalin planned to nationalize the remaining private industry and, mainly, to collectivize farms – whose yields would be used to invest in the rapidly-developing industrial sector at the expense of starving millions of Ukrainians. The Five Year plan focused on construction of new plants and on creation of new branches of heavy industry, and it expired in 1933 (it was officially implemented by Ukraine in 1929).

The first projects under the new plan were powerplants – beginning with the construction of the Lenin Dnieproges, the largest hydroelectric plant in Europe (finished in 1932). 400 new industrial plants were built in Ukraine from 1929 to 1932 – mainly locomotive, coal, and metallurgical plants. By the end of the first Five Year Plan, 72.4% of the gross output of the Ukrainian economy was from industry, the gross production of large-scale industry had doubled, and the gross output of the machine and metal-working sector increased fourfold. Ukraine had indeed become the Soviet Union’s premier industrial center – in 1932, Ukraine contributed 61% of the Soviet Union’s coal, 69.8% of its iron ore, 68.8% of its pig iron, and 55.7% of its steel.

The apparent success of the Five Year Plan in Ukraine (in terms of industrialization) laid the foundation of economic socialism in the republic, as well as the Soviet Union – rapid industrialization at any cost to the people. The second Five Year Plan was begun in 1933 and scheduled for completion in 1937. Goals for the second Plan included technological modernization of industry, transportation, and agriculture, and the full centralization of control over industry (most of it directly by the Soviet government). By the time of the second Plan’s implementation, virtually all of the power in the USSR had been transferred from the republics to the central government by Stalin’s proactive policies. Now the government wanted more direct control of the industry specifically.

Gross industrial production increased 2.23 times during the five years of the second Plan. Much of the growth came from the machine-building and metal working sector (which increased 2.6 times). However, the major focus of the Plan had been modernization – and labor productivity increased 82% in the industrial sector from 1933 to 1937. Furthermore, by the end of the second Five Year Plan, 99.8% of the Ukrainian industry was socially owned. By 1937, socialism had officially been built in Ukraine and the rest of the Soviet Union. The lofty goal of the next Five Year plan would be to surpass the major capitalist countries in per capita production.

In the end, however, the completion of the third Five Year Plan was prevented by the outbreak of the so-called Great Patriotic War in 1941 (Soviet Union’s entry into World War II), 3.5 years into the Plan. By then, hundreds of new plants had been opened, gross industrial production increased by 40% (1938-1940), and the machine-building and metal working sector increased by 170%. Industrial labor productivity was up 34% in 1940 over the 1937 figure as the Soviet government continued its efforts to modernize the economy – and by 1938, 92.5% of industrial output was produced by large enterprises – this was thought to be more efficient than a larger number of smaller firms, and it facilitated central government control to have only a handful of firms in operation.

By 1940, Ukraine was producing 50.5% of the Soviet Union’s coal, 67.6% of its iron ore, 64.7% of its pig iron, and 48.6% of its steel. The diminishing role of Ukraine in Soviet production of these products reflected the rapid pace of industrialization that the rest of the USSR was pursuing – as well as the creation in Ukraine of significant new industries (including chemical, tractor, and aluminum production). The great pace of interwar industrialization in Ukraine came to an end in 1941, however, as Nazi troops invaded the Soviet Union and ravaged the recently-industrialized economies of its western republics. Not all was for naught, however. It was undoubtedly due to the rapid industrialization of Ukraine and other republics that the Soviets eventually emerged out of the war victorious.

It is often said, especially in Soviet documents, that Ukraine became a highly-industrialized country as a result of the rapid economic developments the three Five Year Plans provided. The numbers support this statement. They portray Ukraine as a moderately advanced industrial economy. However, numbers can be misleading. Virtually all of the industrialization occurred in but a few sprawling centers, like the lower Dnieper region, and large cities, such as Kiev and Odessa. The rest of the country remained somewhat unaffected by all the economic developments of the 1930s. Despite impressive progress in certain parts of the country, the vast majority of Ukraine remained a relatively backward, agriculture-based region.

Furthermore, all the industrial growth of Ukraine came at a very hefty price. Within industry itself, all of the emphasis lay on developing heavy industry, especially heavy industrial producer goods (i.e. iron, coal, building products, machine-building, etc). All this came at the expense of consumer goods and food production and processing. Between 1928 and 1937, output in machine-building and metal working increased 6.1 times – in the same period, output in food processing increased only 1.4 times. Sadly, the increase in food processing was driven mainly by one factor – the production of raw spirits, which nearly quadrupled between 1928 and 1937. All this had a profoundly significant effect on living conditions in Ukraine – millions of people starved in famines, such as the Great Famine of 1933 (whose occurrence, incidentally, was denied by the Soviet Union for several decades). Recent estimates conclude that over 10 million people starved to death in Ukraine in the 1930s, but the precise number will never be known and may be much higher.





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